26 Apr 2019

Sit down, dude -- who are the men who get angry at fictional women and the actresses who play them?

Thousands of “cyber warriors” are out there fighting the “culture wars” against pop culture heroines, gamers, and even women scientists. Their goal? To put opinionated women back into  their passive, docile place.

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P. Sterczewski NewsMavens, Europe
Sit down, dude --  who are the men who get angry at fictional women and the actresses who play them? - NewsMavens
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, YouTube

Right before the release of Captain Marvel, a recent movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first one (out of 22) featuring a female protagonist, its page on the popular review website Rotten Tomatoes showed a low “Audience Score” of 33%. This indicated a widespread negative sentiment towards a movie which had even not hit theaters yet. Why did tens of thousands of people decide to downvote a movie they hadn’t even seen?

A new installment in a hugely popular superhero series, introducing a character well-known from the comics, but absent from the movies so far, Captain Marvel gathered much attention well before the release. In line with the character’s history, the promotional campaigns used some emancipatory girl power references. However, it turned out that not everybody was happy with such a treatment, and negative reactions focused on the movie’s lead actress: Oscar-winner Brie Larson.

Participants of this backlash took issue mostly with Larson’s remarks made in a speech from June 2018 and in an interview for Marie Claire on the lack of diversity among film critics and insufficient access for women and people of color to accreditations and press screenings. Right-wing and conservative-oriented media outlets and fans quickly misinterpreted her plea as “man-hating”,”‘racist”, “politically correct”, and full of disdain toward her target audience.

They also quickly found other reasons to criticize Brie Larson ranging from her other feminist statements to her supposedly not smiling enough in the Captain Marvel trailer. All of these talking points have been turning up in the negative user reviews of the movie. There have also been appeals to boycott it, and an accompanying social media #AlitaChallenge -- encouraging people to go to the cinemas to see a different movie instead (Alita: Battle Angel, a film that also features a female protagonist, but -- in the judgement of the “challenge” participants -- without the perceived “feminist agenda”). Furthermore a flurry of articles and blog posts described the feminist aspects of Captain Marvel as flaws.

While the whole movement against Captain Marvel turned out to be completely unsuccessful -- the movie has recently amassed a billion dollars in the box office -- it is still worth paying attention to it as part of a wider trend observable in recent years: the organized online anti-feminist and anti-diversity actions that treat pop culture as a both battlefield and recruiting ground for anti-progressive political movements.

Most of these backlash campaigns (those described below, but also several others, like Comicsgate, and the Sadpuppies controversy, the opposition to female characters in the new Star Wars movies, the boycott of Gillette after the release of their commercial tackling toxic masculinity, and the recent misjudged criticism of the scientist Katie Bouman) originate in the United States and are heavily based in American culture and social discourse, even if they spread internationally through internet.

Some cultural clashes did center on European matters: possibly the most visible example was the wave of negative reactions towards the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th incarnation of the Doctor from an iconic British TV show Doctor Who -- and the first woman in this role in the over 50-year history of the series. For some viewers, a centuries-old alien with regenerative powers who travels time in a space-bending British police box transforming into a woman was a step too far. It’s hard to say whether the absurdity of the criticism was a factor in this, but the backlash, banded together under the hashtag #NotMyDoctor, was not so strong as the aforementioned ones. It lacked high-profile supporters who could amplify the message, and did not manage to convincingly link the topic with broader discourses.

Given the dominant position of the United States in the production of high-budget pop culture media, it is understandable that the American perspective sets the tone of these discussions. These discussions, however, get translated and adapted to other countries’ contexts, sometimes adding a specific local flavour that is subsequently noticed again in the cultural center. Such was the case of Daniel Vavra, a Czech game developer who supported Gamergate. His vehement defences against the criticisms of racism and sexism in his then-developed game Kingdom Come: Deliverance were co-opted by Gamergate proponents as an example of alleged oppression against Central and Eastern European creators.

In a similar vein, some fans of The Witcher universe took issue with a rumour that Ciri, one of the main characters, would be non-white in the upcoming Netflix adaptation. In an online petition they claimed that "The Witcher is a Polish series of novels set in a Eastern European, medieval fantasy world", mistaking fantasy with historical fiction and ignoring the plethora of references to other cultures and periods in the books. The controversy around Captain Marvel and its supposed “political correctness” has also been echoed throughout Europe, reaching countries from the Netherlands through to Serbia and Poland.

The first prominent example of such organized online anti-progressive campaigns emerged in the culture of video games fans in 2014. Gamergate started as a hate campaign targeted against the feminist independent game developer Zoe Quinn, and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as other pro-diversity, progressive figures in gaming culture. Its self-description was a “consumer revolt for ethics in game journalism” and the fight against “social justice warriors”, “political correctness”, and even generally “politics” in games (as if politics was ever outside games). While the participants of the movement were claiming not to be sexist (and even created a mascot of a fictional female gamer agreeing with all their claims), The harassment was overwhelmingly targeted towards women.

Gamergate's claims of prioritizing “ethics in game journalism” didn’t hold up under scrutiny and turned to be just a smokescreen for the broader culture war going on underneath.

As Megan Condis, the author of the book Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks & the Gendered Battle for Online Culture notes, the alt-right saw Gamergate as a recruitment opportunity and a way of mainstreaming their ideas. Several influential figures of the alt-right supported the movement and used it as a way of boosting their popularity and publicizing their broader agenda -- among them Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, Carl Benjamin, and (indirectly) Steve Bannon, later a Chief Strategist in the Donald Trump administration. Gamergate’s ideology solidified around the notions of anti-feminism, anti-diversity, free market, appreciation of traditional masculinity, and unlimited free speech -- all in line with the broader political movement of alt-right.

While Gamergate itself largely died out and did not achieve its declared goals, it did serve as a training ground, networking site and blueprint for later, similar campaigns. This was apparent in the backlash against a 2016 Ghostbusters remake. The angry reactions started after it had been announced that all the leads in the new production would be female. A recurring motif in the negative comments was that the all-female cast somehow “ruins the childhoods” of the fans of the original 1984 film.

Campaigners urged the boycott the movie and used downvoting and “review bombing” tactics (on IMDb website, even now ratings from men are on average significantly lower). Even Donald Trump (not yet US president) joined the critics. Milo Yiannopoulos, known already for his engagement in Gamergate, fueled the sexist and racist harassment of Leslie Jones on Twitter, one of the Ghostbusters’ leads, resulting in him being permanently banned from the platform. The movie did not succeed financially, but how much of this can be attributed to the backlash is hard to estimate.

All of these seemingly banal conflicts around pop culture reveal a wider ideological pattern. In all of them, overwhelmingly male groups defend what they see as their territory from a perceived invasion of outside forces -- assertive women, sexual and racial/ethnic minorities, academics and critics analyzing their objects of interest, and generally anyone who tries to challenge their comfortable status quo.

The sexist undertones of this backlash is obvious -- it’s invariably opinionated women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Leslie Jones or Brie Larson, who get attacked most fervently, as if they needed to be put back in their passive, silent, and docile place.

This is perhaps why some scenes from Captain Marvel -- being released from her shackles, getting up after her being knocked down, and fighting he enemies that questioned her power -- feel especially relevant despite their somewhat simple symbolism. In a world of trolls, they promise change -- one superhero, one actress, or one game critic at a time.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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